Our hike through a dense, old-growth forest of cedar and fir brings us to a sandy beach, and we continue our journey by kayak. Long-necked Western grebes are diving for anchovies. Seals playfully bob next to our boats, staring at us with big, soft eyes that seem to question our intrusion.
After beaching our kayaks, we walk a couple of hundred yards and hail a cab along the street to take us for lunch to the chic Blue Water Cafe, where seafood is prepared West Coast-style, with a hint of Asian fusion.
This is tourism Vancouver-style. Watch the salmon jumping in the morning, spend the afternoon at an art gallery. Rent a mountain bike to take on rough hilly trails, and stop for tea with crumpets when you tire. The city of Vancouver meets and in fact incorporates the country here, offering the best of both worlds.
But Vancouver is also where East meets West. This city in the southwest corner of British Columbia is midway between Europe and Asia. It's a bit of England, with cricket fields and formal gardens, but also a gateway to the Pacific Rim. After English, the most commonly spoken language is Chinese.
The varied cultures have come together to create a sophisticated, dynamic and vibrant city that remains uniquely Canadian. It's a place where the giant carved totem poles of the indigenous population mix easily with signs of homage to the British queen, where the dim sum includes wild Pacific salmon and bok choy.
Just 24 miles from the U.S. border, Vancouver is also less than an hour's ferry ride from Victoria, on the island of Vancouver. The island and the city that shares its name are separated by the Strait of Georgia.
Vancouver would be a first-rate city even if it weren't surrounded by water and towering mountains. The fresh, salty breezes are a bonus, as is the fact that wise urban planners left about as much space within city limits for woods and parkland as they did for developers in the main downtown area.
My family planned during our four-day visit here to travel just outside the city for an outdoor adventure to supplement our urban pleasures. But we discover that we don't need to leave the city limits to satisfy either appetite.
I realize the minute we hit our hotel that Vancouver's outdoorsy dynamic does not mean we'll be seeing any Canadians in plaid wool shirts and hobnailed boots. This city is chic, and we spend our first night in one of the trendiest parts of town, in a new boutique hotel.
The bar of the Opus Hotel is filled with beautiful people lounging in a steel-and-glass tribute to hip modernity. My 10-year-old daughter immediately falls in love with the boldly colored chairs in the lobby -- chairs best described as what beanbags might become if they could mature gracefully.
While she and her father relax -- we don't arrive until after 10 p.m. -- I stroll the neighborhood of Yaletown, sharing the streets with locals walking their dogs and young professionals picking and choosing among the bars and restaurants of the refurbished former warehouse district. Tourism officials compare Yaletown to New York's SoHo, but it's much cleaner, and not nearly as large or edgy.
The next morning I walk to Urban Fare, a gourmet supermarket that makes D.C.'s finest seem like pretenders, and select fig bread, olives and chunks of Cheshire and Shropshire cheeses for a picnic. Then my daughter and I head for Stanley Park, the 1,000-acre swath of green that is connected to downtown but is otherwise surrounded by English Bay, Lost Lagoon, Coal Harbour and the Strait of Georgia.
We hike in the hilly forest of the giant park, emerging to find a paved pathway that leads to a sandy beach. There we meet our guide, John Reed, and jump into kayaks.
Although Vancouver is less than two hours from major ski resorts like Whistler that offer winter sports into April, the city's weather is the mildest in Canada. A strong, warm Pacific Ocean current blows from Japan, and a flow of air originates near Hawaii. Spring flowers come alive by early March. Sunny days in the 70s prevail from June through October. Winter is the rainy season; snow in the city is rare, although locals talk about heading 30 minutes outside the urban center for a couple of hours of skiing or snowboarding on days when they can be a tad late for work.
There are times during our three-hour kayak trip that we can imagine being in the wilds of Canada and can spot in the distance the Coast Mountain range. Then suddenly we see the city skyline and majestic bridges. When we row to shore, I turn to Reed and spontaneously blurt, "I want to live here."
"Everyone says that when the sun is shining," answers Reed, who in the winter moves down to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico and California to guide sailing, kayaking and whale-watching tours.
Reed tells us of the moonlight kayak tours he leads off the shores of Vancouver during the summer months, and I promise myself to return.
We need not have brought a picnic snack. There is a teahouse in Stanley Park, and the area where we beach our kayaks is only a short stroll from city streets filled with restaurants. But it's a welcome treat before we set off biking through the park.
Mountain bikes are available for the hilly terrain of the forested area of the park, but we opt for cruiser-style bikes and follow paved pathways along six miles of sea wall. Again, on the bike ride, the view sometimes appears to be wilderness territory. But turn a corner and a cityscape appears in the distance.
Despite the gourmet snack, we're ready for a seafood lunch by early afternoon, and I round out the day with shopping. Actually, there is more salivating than shopping in Yaletown. The stores carry upscale goods. I come very close to buying an antique Chinese chest of drawers that is a huge bargain but back out when I discover shipping will cost $600.
That evening I head to the Vancouver Playhouse to see "Proof," the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Toronto is Canada's theater central, and Vancouver's three city-operated theaters and smaller venues may not have anything you want to see on a given weekend. But its theater is supplemented by a vibrant music and dance scene. And the local production of "Proof" -- the scenery, acting and staging -- was first-rate.
Cow Shops and
Hotels are one of Vancouver's strengths, and although we love the Opus, we want to sample the city's variety and get a feel for different parts of town. So the following morning we head to the heart of the downtown shopping area and check into the Pacific Palisades.
The main draw for the Pacific Palisades -- aside from a glass-enclosed indoor pool -- is its location along Robson Street, the main commerce area. We are drawn immediately to Cows, a store across the street that sells cow-themed items of every imaginable variety. And we can't resist buying Canadian-made inline skates: An end-of-the-season sale, combined with the famed Canadian exchange rate, makes them too cheap not to buy. Besides, we couldn't help noticing the day before that Stanley Park is a skater's heaven.
It's a short walk down the hill from the shopping district to the edge of Stanley Park. Skating for miles, we stumble on a permanent exhibit of huge carvings of native tribes at the edge of the forest. Our diversions off the main pathway also lead us to an English garden, cricket fields and, eventually, the Vancouver Aquarium. Raffi -- a singer known to all parents of toddlers -- lives in Vancouver, and I think of him immediately when seeing the baby beluga with his giant white parents.
We dine that evening in the style to which we've become accustomed in Vancouver -- i.e., fine restaurants at reasonable prices, given the exchange rate -- and head to TheaterSports League, a venue for improvisational theater. Perhaps you have to be young to enjoy it properly. Luckily, the crowd is young and seems to appreciate the humor of actors who use props like ill-fitting wigs and wooden rifles.
We have yet another hotel to try and drop our bags the next morning at the Wedgewood. If led there blindfolded, I would have sworn I was in a posh London hotel. The small lobby is paneled with carved mahogany and lighted by a chandelier and roaring fireplace. Afternoon tea is served.
Soon after settling in, we hop a trolley for the grand tour of the city, getting the big picture for two hours before jumping off at Chinatown (Vancouver claims the third-largest Chinatown in North America). We track down Floata's, which was recommended for its great dim sum. The main dining area is about the size of Madison Square Garden. Dozens of varieties of dim sum wheel by, and we stop every cart.
Waddling back to the trolley stop, we board for Science World, which was among the attractions we'd passed earlier. If you don't have a kid in tow, the Omnimax theater offers an excuse to stop anyway. Then on your way in or out of the theater, you can sidle up to cool math and science exhibits.
Unfortunately, as we head back to the hotel, my daughter notices that the Wedgewood is only a short skate away from the sea wall promenade in Stanley Park. So off we blade until dinnertime.
On our final day, we've planned to head a short distance out of town to Capilano Park and Grouse Mountain. The plan is to walk across a high, swinging suspension bridge over a gorge, visit a salmon hatchery and take a tram across the mountains.
But we're enjoying the city too much to want to leave. We grab a cab to return to Chinatown to stroll the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden. You need a guide to explain the yin-yang principal that creates the garden's "harmony through opposition" -- dark next to light, swaying bamboo beside rock, water flowing softly over stones.
We take our feeling of harmony with us to Granville Island, where a giant farmer's market offers the makings of a picnic along the water. We poke around the small specialty shops and handicraft galleries on the island that is part of the city proper, and are left with just enough time to fit in a short sail on English Bay.
We return toward shore near dusk, as the city lights begin to twinkle on, and the sun sinks below the horizon, beneath the mountains and the sea.
Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.